We envision all kinds of things. Possible futures, impossible futures, alternative futures.
Distinguishing between vision and imagination is difficult, if we’re not invested in making the visions real.
But for those who are ready to invest the time and resources to turn visions into reality, there is hard work ahead.
Although that’s not what happened with Abraham. It was easy for him. In last week’s Torah portion, Vayera, he sat at the doorway of his tent, gazing out at the landscape, and suddenly “He appeared before him.” He being God; him being Abraham.
God did much more than show Abraham a vision of being the father of a great nation. God planted that image in Abraham’s own mind, inflating his sense of self-importance by inviting him to discuss the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham was happy to oblige, playing the role of advocate for the righteous, even though God knew there were no righteous ones to be found.
Abraham became laser focused on the future God had promised, the future he had learned to envision for himself.
Like many people who are focused on themselves, Abraham seemingly forgot to care about the welfare of his family. He pawned Sarah off as his sister twice, once to a pharaoh, once to a king. His wife’s maidservant became his concubine and bore his child, yet he willingly sent her into the desert with barely enough food for herself and her son. And finally, without question or pause, he set off to murder his other son as a sacrifice to God.
Each step of the way, the situation was resolved satisfactorily and Abraham became wealthier and more successful at every turn. God saw to that.
But I wonder if God did Abraham a disservice. If Abraham would have been a better person, a better father, husband, and leader, if he dealt with the consequences of his actions on his own.
It is entirely possible that I am asking too much. When life is handed to you on a silver platter, the only sane answer is to say thank you. Who in their right mind would ask for life to be more difficult? The Torah tells us that Abraham died at a ripe old age, seemingly happy and contented. Our tradition lauds him as the first Jew, the first of our patriarchs.
The visionaries who I have known, and I have had the honor of interacting with several, didn’t have quite as easy a time as Abraham. They persevered nonetheless. John Lewis, who reminded us to make good trouble. Jim Rouse, who built cities with neighborhoods that had homes for people of all income levels. Reb Zalman, who changed the way we think about Judaism and trained rabbis to march in his footsteps.
It is one thing to envision a new future, quite another to make it happen. Whether the visionary is an Abraham of the Torah or an Abraham Lincoln, whether the task is easy or difficult, they commit themselves to an uncertain future and do their best to make it a reality.
And I am reminded that both Abrahams knew without a doubt that they had God at their side. With the strength of that conviction, it is possible that anything can be achieved, even the impossible. (Please note that I said at their side, not on their side.)
For my part, I believe that it is a visionary’s dedication and belief that matters, not their ultimate success. If their vision is compelling and true, even if they do not complete the task, someone else will surely come along and pick up the mantle of leadership.
My congregation, Kol HaNeshama in Sarasota Florida, is riding on the shoulders of visionaries who imagined what the Sarasota Jewish community would be like with a new kind of synagogue, unlike all of the others, that spoke to the hearts and souls of people searching for a meaningful Jewish experience, both spiritually and communally. And here we are. Fourteen years into the experiment, we continue to grow and serve a diverse congregation.
May we and all communities continue to be blessed with visionary leaders as we move ahead into an uncertain future, knowing that the pandemic is still raging around the globe, and knowing too that we must be committed to be caring, safe, and supportive spiritual homes for all.